National Politics

Can anyone be president in 2020? This South Florida mayor may run and find out.

Former President Bill Clinton attended a meeting of faith and community leaders at the Miramar Cultural Center. After that he was given a tour of the Miramar City Hall Plaza by Mayor Wayne Messam.
Former President Bill Clinton attended a meeting of faith and community leaders at the Miramar Cultural Center. After that he was given a tour of the Miramar City Hall Plaza by Mayor Wayne Messam.

The idea that anybody can be president of the United States has never seemed so true.

Following Donald Trump’s unlikely rise from reality TV star to commander in chief, an unprecedented number of Democrats are launching or weighing a 2020 bid. The eclectic list includes everything from billionaires and powerhouse U.S. senators to those with longer odds, like the openly gay, 37-year-old mayor of suburban South Bend, Indiana.

Even retired Army major and former West Virginia state senator Richard Ojeda received air time on Bloomberg and Meet the Press Daily when, just days after losing a congressional race by 12 points, he announced a presidential campaign that ultimately lasted all of two months.

Never before has the line between long-shot and quixotic been so blurred. And Wayne Messam, the little-known mayor of Miramar, may decide to test the tipping point.

In a scenario that some political consultants have called “far-fetched” and “absurd,” Messam — the mostly ceremonial mayor of a west Broward city of 140,000 and owner of a construction firm — has been pondering a run for president. The Miami Herald confirmed that he sought out meetings and advice during the recent U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington after, an adviser says, he received encouragement from unnamed politicians, consultants and activists.

“I think he’s starting to look at staff, especially in early states, and some key folks around him,” said Cory Alpert, a political consultant and adviser to Conference of Mayors president Steve Benjamin. Alpert said he had dinner with Messam during the late-January conference. “I’m not getting the sense that he has folks on the ground already or even has concrete roles for any particular people lined out. I’m getting the sense that he’s having those conversations with some of the operatives and key endorsers in those early states to kind of suss out what that looks like.”

Messam did not respond to requests for comment.

That he would even dip a toe in presidential waters has drawn guffaws and incredulity from some political consultants and operatives in Florida. One Democrat quipped that Messam, a 44-year-old former wide receiver for the champion 1993 Florida State Seminoles football team, “has a better chance of being a slot receiver for the Miami Dolphins than he does of being president.”

But polls continue to show that about a year out from the Iowa caucuses there is no Democratic frontrunner, and that voters want “someone new.” And with so many candidates potentially running, the possibility of different states supporting different candidates is higher than in most years, creating a greater chance of a brokered convention and the emergence of some dark-horse nominee.

At the same time, there are no other candidates from Florida known to be weighing a run for president, and mayors across the country are considering their options despite scant evidence in U.S. history of local politicians rising to the White House. Alpert, the adviser to Columbia, S.C., Mayor Benjamin, said he spoke during the Washington conference to at least 16 people thinking about presidential runs and interested in a Benjamin endorsement.

“Look at Pete Buttigieg: He’s in South Bend and in a state that’s not going to make waves in the primary or the general … But look at the kind of coverage and demand that Pete is getting,” said Phillip Thompson, a former Florida Democratic Party deputy director who served as Andrew Gillum’s first campaign manager on his run for governor and counts Messam as a close friend. “That should tell you something about where the Democratic party base is.”

Buttigieg, the mayor of a city of barely more than 100,000 people, received a full day of coverage from cable news networks and plenty of ink from news outlets when he announced that he was launching an exploratory committee this month. But he’s also been building a national profile since 2017, when he ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And his candidacy — he’s an openly gay Afghan war veteran who’d be the first millennial president — makes for a compelling story.

Messam’s supporters say his story also has a chance to resonate with Democratic voters.

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Wayne Messam hugs coach Bobby Bowden in the final seconds of the game as FSU beat UM 34-16 on Oct. 12, 1996. Miami Herald file

A self-made businessman who grew up in the tiny Lake Okeechobee town of South Bay as the son of a Jamaican sugar cane worker, Messam became Miramar’s first black mayor. He is a husband, father, and the immediate past president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, and presides over one of the country’s fastest growing communities. Miramar, where Messam is a shoo-in to win reelection as mayor next month, is home to several major federal operations, including an FBI field office and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.

An adviser said a potential platform would include the Democratic standards: gun safety, climate change, jobs and student loans.

Messam, meanwhile, was among Gillum’s earliest supporters, and helped the former Tallahassee mayor build support in his predominantly black suburb. He’s since gauged interest from some of Gillum’s former campaign staff, like former finance director Akilah Ensley.

Gillum, who just landed a CNN gig, told the Herald in December that he intends to use the millions of dollars in his state-registered political committee to keep a grassroots network together and functioning heading into 2020. But Gillum is friendly with several presidential hopefuls, and it’s not clear to what extent, if any, he would help Messam.

Even with Gillum’s support, though, Messam would still be a long-shot. He’s little known in South Florida, much less the country. And though he beat an incumbent in a three-way race to become mayor in 2015, he needed less than 2,800 votes to do it.

Other candidates believing the race to be wide open have been quickly proven wrong. Ojeda, the former West Virginia state senator who announced a campaign in November, suspended his efforts in late January just two weeks after resigning his senate seat. In a video explaining the decision, he said that he quickly realized he had no shot to raise the money needed to run a viable candidacy.

“When I was a kid in grade school, my teachers always said that anyone could grow up and become president,” Ojeda said. “Unfortunately, what I’m starting to realize is that unless you have wealth, influence and power, it’s not gonna happen.”

But people close to Messam believe that he has a shot to raise the dollars necessary to fuel a campaign and make it viable enough to last through the primaries in South Carolina and Florida, where the black vote is crucial for any candidate. Ensley, the former Gillum campaign finance director, said Gillum proved how far small-dollar donations can go while running as the first African American nominee for governor in Florida. And she said Trump has proved that popular convention about who can run for president isn’t always correct.

“I truly do believe that anything is possible,” she said, laughing. “We live in the age of Trump.”

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